Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Because video games: games, flow and the evolution of our brains

The summer between 5th and 6th grade, having just moved to a new town in northern Michigan after the school year ended and thus not knowing anyone yet, I found a passion that still fuels me: video games. We had an Atari 2600 and while my sister roamed our new neighborhood to make friends, I settled in to beat Pac-Man. I played for hours and hours, until I got so good at avoiding ghosts and eating fruit that I rolled the scoreboard.

My mom eventually kicked me out of the house to go find my sister and play. She coined the term "mush brain" and continued to repeat the same refrain, even as I moved on to Frogger and Pitfall and eventually to Centipede, from which I still have the remnants of callouses from the rollerball controller.

That phrase, mush brain, never made sense to me, as I knew that counter to what my mom might have seen as me zoning out, I was actually concentrating REALLY HARD. I didn't want to be disturbed, not because I was catatonic, but because I was intensely focused.

Fast forward 25 years, as my 9 year old son is standing in the middle of my living room, a Wii controller in each hand, focused so completely on Punch Out (which had been my birthday gift, fwiw) that he doesn't hear us telling him it's time for dinner. My mom called him a mush brain. I stopped her and said, "No, look. Watch him. He's solving the pattern for each boxer. He's concentrating. He's doing hard work."

I happened upon a conversation on a friend's Facebook page today, where he reflected on the damage that video games cause to how our brains function. I flashed back to my own experiences as a kid, and to watching my kids now. Maybe video games DO change the way our brains work, but I think it's for the better. Video games are enormous feedback experiences where each move you make has a consequence - an increase in score, a goal accomplished or failed and, of course, game over. Games teach us to practice, to keep trying, to fail and have another go. Games teach us persistence. Games teach us problem solving, logic, complex decision-making and pattern recognition. Video games improve our fine motor skills. Collaborative games teach team work, communication skills and leadership skills. And beyond all of that...games might be our first experience of flow, that deeply focused attention that some might dismiss as mindlessness rather than mindfulness.

And yet, so many people jumped on the "anti-video game" band wagon in the comments. It's so easy to vilify, to oversimplify the evolution of our brains due to the influences of technology and to ignore the actual research that disproves your opinion. It's so easy. "Games are bad." It is so easy to point fingers and cite circumstantial evidence to counter honest to goodness research and data that shows the benefits of games. This is no means unique to games; we see the same arguments against gun control, feminism, climate change...debates where research shows clear data but passionate opinion somehow gets weighted equally.

Examples of games research to check out:

Karl Kapp's answer to the question (with research!) of "do games teach?" 

An article in Psychology Today on benefits of playing video games 

The educational benefits of video games (written by a professor who studies gambling addiction)

Video games for training surgeons

Just to name a few...and a few resources on flow to check out if you're interested:

Game Design Theory Applied to the Flow Channel 

Wikipedia reference on Flow

I don't have a real picture of us playing, but this is how I imagine me and my son.
Let me be clear: I don't think kids should be playing violent first person shooters. Video game ratings systems are there for a reason and while I tend to focus on the positive impacts of video games, if you're letting your kid watch Game of Thrones or play Call of Duty? Yeah, there are going to be negative impacts. There's plenty of research on the impacts of exposure to violence in video games (and other media forms) on children, as well as the danger of video game addiction. Two points here: Too much of ANYTHING is bad for you, especially for children. And correlation does not equal causation. While there have been lots of correlations drawn between playing violent video games and violent behavior, there is no causal evidence (meaning that playing video games does not cause you to be violent).
Let's be smart out there, people...but let's not throw out the baby with the bath water.

When I worry about how our brains are changing, I think about how we're less likely to engage in deep reading and reflection. I think about how attention spans have shortened, likely because of television commercial cycles and mobile content. I worry about how difficult it is for our brains to discern meaning with the endless stream of information, opinions and misinformation that is broadcast to us through multiple media channels all day long.

I don't worry about video games. Video games have taught me how to fail, pick myself up and try again. They have strengthened my focus and concentration. And my son who conquered Punch Out with focused concentration on pattern recognition? He just won Santa Barbara's Math Super Bowl for 6th grade with a perfect 50/50. So much for being a mush brain.